Archives for posts with tag: Alice Dreger

My grandfather use to tell me not to judge people and that you should always put yourself in their shoes and walk around in them for a while and maybe you would understand where they are coming from. This statement that he made to me kept playing in my head as I read Alice Dreger’s book Hermaphrodites and the medical invention of sex. After reading the story she told about Barbin I decided to put myself in her shoes. How would I feel to look different than all the other females around me and to love someone who society says it to be unfit. I thought about the day she went to the doctor and was poked and prodded by a “man of science.” Being unsure of what he was discovering and feeling so violated only to find at the end that I was not a women but a man. To be torn from the life I knew and place in a world so strange to me, away from the women that I was in love with. To feel so alone, no one to talk to, no one to understand me, alone in a world that I didn’t belong. I too would have wanted to end my life like she did. These thought made me realize how lonely and confusing a Hermaphrodites life must be. Worse is begin made a certain sex that you don’t feel you are. I thought about what I would do if I myself had an intersex baby. Would I like so many choose the sex for my baby before they even had a chance to decide? Would I want to be the one to cause such pain and mental torcher to my baby or would I tell the doctors to let my baby be and let them decide down the road what they wanted to do with their own body? If I chose to let them decide for themselves how would I present my baby to society how, would I dress them? After thinking about this for many hours I decided that I would most certainly let them decide for themselves and I would present my child to society as my perfect child the one meant for me. I would dress my child in gender natural clothing until they decided what they wanted to be and when they were ready to go to school I would let them choose what they felt was the right sex at that time and if down the road they changed their mind I would be there with them on their journey never judging. I know that even though I thought about all this that it wouldn’t all end up pretty and happy there would be people that would judge my child down the road and they would be face with a lot of hard ships. That no matter what path you take an intersex person has a lot to deal with. All this makes me sick to think how society is so set on picking a gender and how we are wrapped up in gender that people who can not help how they were born are stuck in this web where they can not win. Where they can not be left alone in the world to be who they are without being looked at as some freak that will be tagged with a label as” it” or some scientific name and placed in science magazines.

~Kielly Perkins~

In her book Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex Alice Dreger charts the ideological shifts in medical consensus over the classification of hermaphroditic bodies during the mid-19th and early 20th Centuries.  While there occurred significant changes in the favored procedures of Western medicine for the treatment of hermaphrodites during this time, Dreger’s description of the Age of Gonads shows how the medical field sometimes oscillated in its favored procedures while at a deeper level remaining in the service of a static idea.  In this case the static idea is sexual dimorphism and the procedure is the favored route for determining “true” sex.  Dreger writes, “During this period, 1870-1915, what I call the Age of Gonads, scientific and medical men, faced with and frustrated by case after case of ‘doubtful sex,’ came to an agreement that every body’s ‘true’ sex was marked by one thing and one thing only: the anatomical nature of the gonadal tissue as either ovarian or testicular,” (29).  At the beginning of said Age, gonads began their reign as the penultimate determiners of sex, and self-evidently, at the end of the Age science turned to other factors such as secondary sex characteristics for sex certainty.  This characterization presents a very clear shift from one procedure of sex determination to another, but significantly, both the adoption and the eventual abandonment of gonads as the “true” sex markers were undertaken for the motivation of upholding sexual dimorphism.  To demonstrate, when discussing why gonads were initially chosen as sex determiners, Dreger writes, “The gonadal definition of true sex seemed to preserve, in theory and practice, the strict separation between males and females,” (30).  In fact, most medical professionals, (a group which, during our era of focus, was comprised almost solely of white, heterosexual males with property or wealth) preached the gospel of sexual difference: “Many men of science, following in the footsteps of the great Charles Darwin, wrote with confidence and enthusiasm about the differences of the male and female types,” (Dreger, 26).  Worthy of mention is the fact that sexual dimorphism was generally deployed for the sake of restricting men and women to certain “natural” domains of behavior and opportunity.

When, in 1915, the Age of the Gonads as identified by Alice Dreger comes to a close, it is by the hand of a medical professional named Blair Bell: “Until 1915 when William Blair Bell did so, apparently no medical man dared to openly question the gonadal definition of true sex,” (Dreger, 158).  However, while Blair was the one to conspicuously conclude the Age of the Gonads, his reason for prescribing a change in procedure is one which strives to uphold the same ideology of sexual dimorphism which originally catalyzed the advent of the Age.  Blair’s abandonment of gonads as the true sex determiners was prompted by his experience with patients such as Dr. Russell Andrews’ patient (as referenced on Dreger’s page 161) who looked like, behaved like, and believed herself to be a woman, but in whom was discovered testicular gonadal tissue.  In such a circumstance, if the gonads were to be considered the authorities, there would be a confusing incongruity between the medically official sex and what is aesthetically observable about the person such as the appearance of secondary sex characteristics and gender presentation. This confusion is the antithesis of what is desired by a system which subscribes to sexual dimorphism: the co-mingling of “oppositional” sexual allegiances on a single body dangerously blurs the distinction between the sexes and shatters the glass wall so carefully cultivated by sexual dimorphism between the essential “natures” and capacities of men and women.  Dreger writes, “Blair Bell was, like his predecessors and successors, motivated in theory and practice by an interest in maintaining clear, medically sanctioned divisions between the two sexes… Indeed, this was largely the reason Blair Bell suggested the abandonment of the gonad-as-exclusive-marker rule.  … If men and women were to be kept distinct, Blair Bell realized, hermaphrodite-sorting would have to be accomplished in such a way as to quiet sex anomalies, not accentuate them,” (165-166).  Thus, it is significantly evident that both the rise and fall of the Age of Gonads were dictated by a curiously strong medical loyalty to sexual dimorphism; even more significantly, this persistent piece of ideology has not yet found its overdue grave, and it still continues to influence the practice of medicine and other sciences today.


By: Rosalind Rini

Throughout our reading of Alice Dreger and our various discussions in class I found myself fascinated by the story of Abel/Alexina Barbin.  As we watched the puppet reenactment of her story in class I began to understand the difficulties all intersex individuals must face, especially in the nineteenth century as Barbin did.  As I read Barbin’s story I began to understand that Abel/Alexina was seen as little more than a fascinating piece of scientific information that needed to be studied, even after her body was found dead.

As I read this I found myself being appalled and saddened that after Barbin’s suicide, scientists were eager to study the body for its oddities.  At first I considered these actions of as something that would only happen in the nineteenth century and concluded that modern society is more sympathetic and understanding to those intersex individuals.  As I thought of this though, I began to relate this story to Caster Semenya’s story and began to realize just how little our society has changed in its treatment of intersex individuals.

As in the nineteenth century, our society demands that each person must be either man or woman, with no gray area.  At birth and till her twenties Alexina identified as a women and fit comfortably into society as such, not until doctors discovered her ambiguous genitalia was she made to identify as a man.  Caster Semenya just as Alexina identified and lived her entire life as a woman, and her gender was brought into to question only because she was succeeding so much in her sport.

Gender is such a fundamental part of our society that we feel we have the right to demand proof of someone’s sex even if it involves invasive testing like in the case of Caster Semenya.  Throughout the readings and the stories of these to women, I can only keep going back to what I have learned in gender studies, that gender is not a simple binary that can easily be defined by genitals.  As a society we should strive to not repeat history and be understanding to those intersex individuals, as insensitivity is shown to destroy lives.  Dreger quotes in her book from the diaries of Abel/Alexina Barbin “Reality is crushing me, is pursuing me,” I feel we must take note of these struggles and work to create a reality that is not oppressive to intersex individuals.

-Claire Amick


In other classes I’ve read about Cheryl Chase and the group she created, the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA). However, I know little about the organization or why a new organization was created, the Accord Alliance. So, this week I wanna talk about the ISNA, Accord Alliance, and support groups for intersex individuals.

In Hermaphrodites and the Medical Invention of Sex, Dreger argues that some intersex patients were angry because they were not offered psychological support (200). They, and their families, had to deal with their feelings on their own (200).  Many were happy just to find out that they were not alone and not “freaks” (201).

When I googled ‘Intersex support groups’ the first thing that popped up was Chase’s group, the Intersex Society of North America. Their mission is:

The Intersex Society of North America (ISNA) is devoted to systemic change to end shame, secrecy, and unwanted genital surgeries for people born with an anatomy that someone decided is not standard for male or female.

We have learned from listening to individuals and families dealing with intersex that:

  • Intersexuality is primarily a problem of stigma and trauma, not gender.
  • Parents’ distress must not be treated by surgery on the child.
  • Professional mental health care is essential.
  • Honest, complete disclosure is good medicine.
  • All children should be assigned as boy or girl, without early surgery.

ISNA seems to be a hub of information for intersex individuals. Besides their mission, the website offers the history of the group as well as some of the positive changes that have happened. For example, there has been a new standard of care created that is more patient centered, avoids misleading language, and is more cautious about surgery. The website also offers A LOT of information about law, such as how to contact Advocates for Informed Choice, as well as information about the law and sex reassignment and the rulings of recent court cases. The website offers a lot of books, videos, and bibliographies about and for intersex (or DSD) individuals.

ISNA also offers a lot of links to specific support groups, such as:

  • Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome
  • Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia
  • General Intersex Information/Groups
  • Hypospadias
  • Klinefelter Syndrome
  • Mayer Rokitansky Kuster Hauser Syndrome
  • Mosaic Turner’s Syndrome
  • Other Resources
  • Other Support Groups
  • Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
  • Testicular Dysgenesis
  • Transgender
  • Turner Syndrome
  • XXYY

ISNA is not the only website offering resources and help to intersex individuals. There is also the Organization Intersex International ,Accord Alliance, blogs by individuals such as The Intersex Roadhouse, and many other websites.

However, what exactly is Accord Alliance? Accord Alliance was created in 2008 by ISNA and is a non-profit organization that is dedicated to improving DSD health care. It is comprised of health care and advocacy professionals. So, ISNA is no longer in opperation, it is now Accord Alliance. However, the ISNA website still exists and continues to be an invaluable source of information for intersex individuals and their families.

By Kristy Wilson